James Beckwourth—The exploration of the American west is largely credited to white explorers and mountain men who have become the stuff of school-yard lore. But one of the most crucial explorers of the western territories was former slave James Beckwourth. Born sometime between 1798 and 1800, Beckwourth was the son of a slave mother and her owner, Jennings Beckwith. Raised by his father as more of a son than a slave, Beckwourth was granted his freedom in the mid 1820s. In 1824 Beckwourth went to work for a fur-trading company owned by William Asher, who brought the young Beckworth along on an expedition to explore the Rocky Mountains. Beckwourth quickly earned a reputation as an exceptional explorer, trapper and fighter. He spent a significant amount of time with the Crow Indians, married the daughter of a chief, and became a revered warrior and leader. Perhaps his most historically significant accomplishment was the “discovery” of Beckworth Pass, a low-elevation path cutting through the Sierra Nevada Mountains from what is now Nevada into California. This trail, which was already known to Indians, made the migration into Northern California significantly less dangerous. Beckwourth’s life and adventures were recounted by him to author Thomas Bonner, who penned The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation. Much of Beckwourth’s personal narrative was discounted by both contemporary readers and historians as being mostly tall tales and legend. But in time his recollections were given more credit, and especially appreciated for his insights into the Crow nation, and the lifestyle of the day. In the 1951 film Tomahawk, white actor Jack Oakie played Sol Beckworth, a character modeled after James Beckwourth. When we talk about how Hollywood distorts history and the truth to serve a narrative of racial superiority, the case of James Beckwourth stands out as a prime example. Compare the real Beckwourth (below left), with how Hollywood portrayed him with actor Oakie (below right). Not only has the real life person been turned into a white man, his persona has been softened and diminished by turning him into a comedic figure.
Nina Mae McKinney – Often referred to as “the Black Garbo” or “the Colored Garbo,” Nina Mae McKinney was the first black leading women in mainstream Hollywood. Nina (pronounced Nine-ah) was born in South Carolina in 1913, and moved to New York while still in her teens. She worked as a dancer when legendary director King Vidor discovered her, and cast her in his 1929 film Hallelujah!. She was one of the first black actresses signed to a studio contract (if not the first), but MGM never really used her that well. She was loaned out to other studios, mostly for B-movies and low budget “black cast” pictures like Gang Smashers and The Devil’s Daughter. She also co-starred opposite Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River. Her career in Hollywood and the United States never really took off, and she spent many years working Europe, primarily performing in live cabarets. Nina’s final film performance was an uncredited role in the 1950 film Copper Canyon. She passed away 17 years later at the age of 53.
Frank Wills – On June 17, 1972, security guard Frank Wills was making his rounds at the Watergate Hotel, when he noticed that a lock on one of the doors was being held open by a piece of duct tape. Wills called the police to report a break-in at the Watergate Hotel, which was the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The break-in that Wills discovered led to a massive investigation and what history now simply refers to as Watergate. The Watergate investigation uncovered corruption at the highest levels of government, and eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Newspaper reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are the men credited with blowing the lid off Watergate and bringing down Nixon, but it all started with Frank Wills. Catapulted into the national spotlight, Wills unfortunately was not prepared for the fame that attached itself to him. His life pretty much spun out of control after Watergate, and in 1983 he was busted for shoplifting. He spent most of his life living in poverty, until he died in 2000 of a brain tumor at the age of 52.
Robert F. Williams—Of all the key players of the Civil Rights movement to make national headlines, few were as influential and now as forgotten as Robert Williams. Born in 1925, Williams was a political activist and community organizer who became actively involved with the NAACP in the 1950s. Williams soon became something of a controversial figure for advocating the use of guns as means of self-defense. Williams founded the Black Armed Guard with the express purpose of defending the black community against racist organizations like the KKK and corrupt cops. In 1957, a KKK group in North Carolina led an attack on the home of a black doctor that was rumored to be helping fund the local NAACP. Williams and the Black Armed Guard were waiting, and returned fire when the Klan attacked, driving the racists off. Williams’s willingness to meet violence with violence placed him at odds with many key Civil Rights leaders, and also earned him the attention of the FBI. When the FBI made a move to arrest Williams, he fled the country and went to Cuba, where Castro welcomed him and helped the militant activist establish a pirate radio station, Radio Free Dixie, which would broadcast to the states. While in Cuba, Williams wrote Negroes With Guns, which would have a profoundly influential impact on Huey P. Newton, who would go on to form the Black Panther Party. Williams left Cuba, relocated to China and eventually returned to America, where he was brought up on charges that were eventually dropped.
As many of you may have heard yesterday, there is a new Shaft movie in the works (click HERE to read more). Almost immediately, the questions started coming my way. Most people want to know if I’m involved (because I’m currently writing the comic for Dynamite Entertainment), or if I know anything about the film. The answer to both questions is a resounding “no.” I am not involved in any capacity at this time, nor has anyone from New Line or Davis Entertainment reached out to me. I learned about the film a little over a month ago, as I began snooping around about the film/television rights (I was approached by some producers who wanted to look into doing a Shaft cable series). Between the lot of us, we found out that the property was in play over at New Line, so we filed that idea under “Dreams That Must Be Crushed.”
Don’t forget the check out the Shaft comic from Dynamite. I wrote it. It is awesome.
I wish I could say that I’m excited about the prospect of a new Shaft movie, but that would be a lie. This is not said out of pettiness because I’m not involved in the project. This is said because that last screen version was terrible. It was an affront to the original films, and more important, it was an affront to the novels by Ernest Tidyman. Even the original films, which I enjoy and appreciate, don’t do justice to Tidyman’s novel, or the depth of the character. Likewise, the television series was a joke. And perhaps most significantly, it’s been a long time since Hollywood has cranked out a truly satisfying action film with a black actor in the lead (notable exceptions would be The Equalizer [maybe] and Django Unchained). So you see, I don’t have much hope for a new Shaft.
That said—and because so many people have been asking (and will continue to ask)—here are some of my thoughts on the new film as a whole.
Gbenga Akinnagbe from The Wire is my top choice to play John Shaft.
– Cast the best actor possible. My top suggestion is Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris Partlow on The Wire).
– Make it a period piece. And don’t treat it like a joke. Black culture of the late 1960s and 1970s is more than a series of jokes punctuated with afros and bellbottoms.
– Forget the Singelton movie existed. Hell, forget the first three movies existed. Stick to the original source material (Tidyman’s books).
– Either adapt the first Tidyman book, or do something original.
– Respect the character over the concept. Tidyman created a great character, but much of that was lost in the translation to film. If there is a single reason the Shaft comic is good, it is because I respected the character created by Tidyman.
– Hire me. Or at least hire a writer than can craft believable black characters, and not sad cinematic clichés. I can provide a list of writers other than myself.
CRAWFORD “CHEROKEE BILL” GOLDSBY – Through the magic of Hollywood, the most legendary figures of the old west, both lawmen and outlaws, have almost always been white. In reality, this was not the case, with some of the most well known people on both sides of the law in the old west being black. This is especially true of Crawford Goldsby, better known as Cherokee Bill, one of the most ruthless outlaws of his time. Born in Texas in 1876, Cherokee Bill was the son of a former Buffalo Soldier and a Cherokee Freedman. Cherokee Bill started his life of crime at age 18, when he shot another man in a dispute. He joined up with outlaws Bill and Jim Cook, and in the summer and fall of 1894, the Cook Gang terrorized much of Oklahoma, robbing and killing with little discretion. The gang split up in late 1894, and in January of 1895, Cherokee Bill was captured. His subsequent trial resulted in a death sentence, and on March 17, 1896, he was sent to the gallows. The day Cherokee Bill was set to be hung, he left behind two lasting memories for his legacy. Legend has it that when Cherokee Bill woke up on the morning of March 17, he said, “This is as good a day as any to die.” When he was taken to the gallows, and asked if he had any last words, Cherokee Bill stated for the record, “I came here to die, not make a speech.” He was dead a few minutes later at the age of 20.
761st BLACK PANTHER TANK BATTALION – All branches of the United States Military were still segregated during World War II, but it was during this time special all-black units were formed, despite the belief that black soldiers were inferior to whites. Among the all-black combat units to be activated, few are more legendary than the 761st Black Panther Tank Battalion. Deployed in Europe in 1944, the 761st became known for their fierce fighting abilities. Of course, they had to be fierce, as they were often used to spearhead attacks, making them the first in the line of fire. The 761st successfully opened a hole in Germany’s Siegfried Line, making room from Patton to lead the 4th Armored Division into Germany, which helped win the war. The 761st fought valiantly through much of Europe, and at the end of the war, they were among the first of American forces to join with the Russians in Austria to liberate the concentration camps at Steyr. Jackie Robinson had been in the 761st, but he was transferred out and faced a court-martial after refusing to sit in the back of a bus during the unit’s training in the south. The racism that Robinson stood up to was a regular occurrence for the 761st and other all-black units in the military.
Mary “Stagecoach Mary” Fields – Born a slave in Tennessee (most likely in 1832), Mary Fields, also known as “Stagecoach Mary,” would go on to become one of the most legendary figures in the settling of the Old West. After the Civil War, Fields made her way west, to Cascade County in Montana. She took a job working at a convent, but it ended poorly after she got into gunfight. She then tried running her own restaurant, but that too failed. It wasn’t until Fields took a job delivering the mail and driving a stagecoach in 1895, at the age of 63, that she found her true calling. Short tempered, fond of cigars, and willing to slug it out or shoot it out with any man, she earned a reputation as a dependable and fierce employee of the postal service, and also was rechristened Stagecoach Mary. According to the Great Falls Examiner, the newspaper that served Cascade County, Stagecoach Mary broke more noses in fights than anyone else in Montana. Stagecoach Mary delivered the mail until she was about 70 years old. After that, she opened her own laundry, and is said to have beaten a man who stiffed her on a bill. She died in 1914 of liver failure, caused in part by her many years of heavy drinking.
Bass Reeves – Born a slave in 1838, Bass Reeves escaped to freedom in the early 1860s. Fleeing north to the Indian Territories (Oklahoma), he lived for a time with different Native American tribes, becoming fluent in various languages. In 1875, U.S. marshal James Fagan recruited Reeves as a deputy U.S. marshal, in part because of his knowledge of Indian tribes and languages, but also because of his skill with a gun. Reeves quickly became a legendary deputy marshal, known not only for his abilities with a gun, but also as keen detective and a master of disguise. During his career he arrested over 3000 criminals, including some of the more notorious outlaws of the day, and killed 14 in the line of duty. In his time, Reeves was a well-known lawman whose exploits became the stuff of legend. But his career faded from memory over the years, overshadowed by men like Wyatt Earp. Reeves retired from the marshals in 1907, and passed away three years later. Some people have speculated that Reeves was the real-life inspiration for the Lone Ranger, though no proof of that has actually turned up, making the assertion nothing more than speculation.
BESSIE COLEMAN and WILLA BROWN – Two pioneering aviators, the life stories of both Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman and Willa Brown define courage and tenacity. Coleman was born to sharecropper parents—the tenth of thirteen children—and dreamed of a better life. She moved to Chicago in 1915, and worked as a manicurist in a barbershop, where tales of fighter pilots in World War I inspired her to learn to fly a plane. With no one in the United States willing to teach her, she learned French, and journeyed to Paris in 1920, where she studied aviation at the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Eventually, she became the first African-American woman to earn both an aviation pilot’s license and an international aviation pilot’s license. Willa Brown had been greatly influenced by Bessie Coleman, and began flying in 1934. She became the first African-American woman to get a commercial pilot’s license. Brown co-founded the National Airmen’s Association of America and the Coffey School of Aeronautics, both of which helped to train African-American pilots, many of whom would go on to become the 99th Pursuit Squadron of World War II, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen.